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A news brief in October 23, 1869 issue of Harper’s Weekly reported the finding of a French scientist that steeping watercress with tobacco leaves removed the poisonous nicotine, and that the leafy green could also be consumed as a tobacco antidote.  In 1886, the watercress theory resurfaced in the “Waifs and Strays” column of the newspaper.  The correspondent of the first piece suggested sarcastically that anti-tobacco societies distribute watercress.  As it turned out, that was not a bad idea.  Although the filtering notion is dubious, the suggestion that the leafy green can counter the effects of tobacco might have some merit.  Medical studies in the 1990s indicated that eating watercress and its close vegetable relatives may help prevent cancer of the gastrointestinal tract and the lung (a high risk for smokers).

In nineteenth-century America, men were the primary tobacco users, and pipe- and cigar-smoking, along with chewing, were their preferred modes of intake.  This illustrated advertisement from the July 18, 1868 issue of Harper’s Weekly appealed to class bias and sports enthusiasm through the name of the pipe and smoking tobacco:  Lorillard Yacht Club.  More importantly, it is the first tobacco ad in the journal that mentioned nicotine, and it claimed in capital letters that “ALL POISONOUS NICOTINE IS EXTRACTED.”  Later ads informed potential customers that Yacht Club Smoking Tobacco “is devoid of Nicotine, and can not injure the health.”  Details of the undoubtedly bogus process were not revealed, but guarded as “exclusively our own.”  Lorillard is the oldest of today’s tobacco companies that were involved in the Tobacco Settlement.

By the turn of the century, reports of the dangers of tobacco were widespread enough, and the anti-tobacco movement strong enough, so that companies sprang up with names and products brazenly marketed as “healthful.”  An ad in the April 15, 1899 issue of Harper’s Weekly was boldly entitled “HEALTH CIGARS” and proclaimed, “NICOTINE IS RENDERED HARMLESS BUT NOT REMOVED” in its tobacco.  The mysterious method of extraction was not revealed, but was bestowed with the aura of approving medical experts.  They included its discoverer, Dr. Hugo Gerold, who was supposedly Germany’s “greatest authority … on nicotine poisoning,” as well as recommendations “by physicians everywhere” and endorsements “by medical associations”—both groups unidentified by name.

In the July 28, 1906 issue of the journal, the Battle Creek Health Cigar Company urged potential customers to “SMOKE CIGARS THAT CANNOT INJURE YOUR HEALTH.”  The ad’s meaningless but technical-sounding rhetoric of “re-sweating and thermo-electric treatment” attempted to lend credence to the claim, “we have a cigar that has nicotine and all injurious properties removed and is absolutely healthful.”  It is especially ironic that “Health Cigars” were made in Battle Creek, Michigan, which became much better known for healthful cereals (Kellogg and Post) and a caffeine-free coffee substitute (Postum).

The November 18, 1911 issue included an illustrated ad for a pipe with a clay bowl that allegedly absorbed nicotine.  It was sold by a St. Louis company that called itself the “Smokers’ Friend.

Harper's Weekly References
1)  October 23, 1869, p. 683, c. 4
“Home and Foreign Gossip” column item, claim that watercress removes poisonous nicotine from tobacco

2)  June 12, 1886, p. 379, c. 3
“Waifs and Strays” column item, watercress theory again

3)  July 18, 1868, p. 462, p. 3-4
ad, smoking tobacco in which “all poisonous nicotine is extracted.”

4)  April 15, 1899, p. 387, c. 2
illustrated ad for “health cigars”

5)  July 28, 1906, p. 1077, c. 2
illustrated ad for another brand of health cigar

6)  November 18, 1911, p. 38, c. 3
illustrated ad for pipe with a bowl that allegedly absorbs dangerous nicotine

Sources Consulted
“Cancer Report,” July 2001,,

Rowlands, Barbara, “Watercress Packs a Punch Against Cancer,” The Daily Telegraph, July 16, 2001, London,


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